The British Parliament seized control of the Brexit process from Prime Minister Theresa May and will now seek to decide how Britain exits the European Union.
In a vote late Monday, the House of Commons split 329-302 to schedule votes on a series of alternative strategies, potentially including a second referendum, keeping the United Kingdom in the bloc’s customs union, leaving without a deal and even canceling Brexit altogether.
The pound rose immediately after the result, before paring gains. Early Tuesday, it was trading down 0.1 percent.
Three ministers resigned to back the plan, which sets up the possibility that MPs could force the beleaguered premier to abandon her deal with Brussels and implement their choice. One of them, Steve Brine, said Tuesday the pro-Brexit faction in his Conservative Party should see the result as an indication Parliament will push to keep closer ties to the European Union.
“Maybe what last night will do is focus some minds for those on my side who don’t like the deal,” Brine told BBC Radio. “Maybe they will realize that the House of Commons is prepared to act and anything from here gets softer in terms of Brexit.”
In a sign of how far May has lost the trust of MPs, even on her own side, the defeat came despite last-minute promises from her government that it would implement the plan itself if lawmakers voted against it.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC it’s now “very clear” that politicians who want to deliver on the Brexit referendum result must back the prime minister’s deal.
“Even for colleagues of mine who want to go down the no-deal route, it’s clear the House of Commons is not going to let that happen,” Hancock said, a warning to the pro-Brexit wing of the Tory party.
Meanwhile, the clock is continuing to tick down. The EU has ruled that if Parliament doesn’t approve May’s deal by Friday, the U.K. has until April 12 to come up with a case for a much longer delay to Brexit, or leave the bloc immediately with no agreement.
While Parliament was forcing its way into the driving seat, those who were supposed to be controlling the process remained passive. After reports at the weekend that May’s Cabinet would tell her it was time for her to go, the subject of her departure wasn’t even raised in its meeting on Monday, according to people present.
Neither was there a decision about whether to try to put the prime minister’s deal to Parliament again. According to one person at the meeting, the main agreement was that the alternatives to getting her plan through were grim.
In the House of Commons, May set out the choices as she saw them. “Unless this House agrees to it, no-deal will not happen,” she said. “No Brexit must not happen; and a slow Brexit that extends Article 50 beyond May 22, forces the British people to take part in European elections, and gives up control of any of our borders, laws, money or trade, is not a Brexit that will bring the British people together.”
Later, in answer to questions, she raised two more options: “Either a second referendum or an election.” Both are unattractive to many MPs.
There were signs that her warnings were working with some supporters of a harder Brexit. Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the hardline European Research Group of Tory MPs, said he would be prepared to back her deal if Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party gave its blessing.
But his comments, made to a meeting of the group in Westminster on Monday evening according to a person in the room, depend on a big shift by the DUP. The party’s Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, was scathing to the prime minister in the Commons, accusing her of using Northern Ireland as an “excuse” and the focus of “scare tactics” to get her deal through.
Having voted to take control, Parliament now has to decide what to do with it. The first stage is the “indicative votes,” scheduled for Wednesday. Although the exact format hasn’t been agreed, it is likely to mean lawmakers voting on a series of Brexit options on a piece of paper.
The idea is that by allowing MPs to vote simultaneously for as many options as they like, some of the game-playing that has characterized Brexit votes so far will be avoided.
“It’s essential we should be able to look at all the serious options, not wild unicorns, but things we could actually do to carry this process forward,” former Tory minister Oliver Letwin, who proposed the plan, told Parliament on Monday. “We should allow ourselves a couple of days to do what should have been done over a couple of years.”
Options on the table are likely to include various closer relationships with the EU than May plans, and perhaps holding a second Brexit referendum.
It’s possible that none of these will get the support of a majority, or that several will. May said she reserves the right not to abide by the result, though her spokesman said this reflected the possibility that Parliament might vote for something unattainable.
“The government’s approach has been an abject failure and this House must now find a solution,” opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said. “Where this government has failed, this House must, and I believe will, succeed.”
(c) 2019, Bloombe · Robert Hutton, Kitty Donaldson